Joho the Blog » social media

February 16, 2014

First post at Medium.com: The Internet is not a Panopticon

I’ve been meaning to try Medium.com, a magazine-bloggy place that encourages carefully constructed posts by providing an elegant writing environment. It’s hard to believe, but it’s even better looking than Joho the Blog. And, unlike HuffPo, there are precious few stories about side boobs. So, and might do so again.

The piece is about why we seem to keep insisting that the Internet is panopticon when it clearly is not. So, if you care about panopticons, you might find it interesting. Here’s a bit from the beginning:

A panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) idea about how to design a prison or other institution where people need to be watched. It was to be a circular building with a watchers’ station in the middle containing a guard who could see everyone, but who could not himself/herself be seen. Even though everyone couldn’t be seen at the same time, prisoners would never know when they were being watched. That’d keep ’em in line.

There is indeed a point of comparison between a panopticon and the Internet: you generally can’t tell when your public stuff is being seen (although your server logs could tell you). But that’s not even close to what a panopticon is.

…So why did the comparison seem so apt?

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January 27, 2014

A gift from God

I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.

NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it’s a pretty good joke.]


The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.

But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:

Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.

Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:

This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.

This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?

For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:

If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.

This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:

We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.

(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)

The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:

What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?

That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”

“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.

From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.

Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!

Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected'; connections need to grow into true encounters.”

The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.

The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.

Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)

Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about

… our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”

Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.

There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don’t know the Catholic Church’s position on faith and doubt.]

I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.

In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.

Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.

That I can say Amen to.

 


I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.

 


In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.

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December 3, 2013

[berkman] Jérôme Hergeux on the motives of Wikipedians

Jérôme Hergeux is giving a Berkman lunch talk on “Cooperation in a peer prodiuction economy: experimental evidence from Wikipedia.” He lists as co-authors: Yann Algan, Yochai Benkler, and Mayo Fuster-Morell.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jérôme explains the broader research agenda behind the paper. People are collaborating on the Web, sometimes on projects that compete with or replace major products from proprietary businesses and institutions. Standard economic theory doesn’t have a good way of making sense of this with its usual assumptions of behavior guided by perfect rationality and self-interest. Instead, Jérôme will look at Wikipedia where people are not paid and their contributions have no signaling value on the labor market. (Jérôme quotes Kizor: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory it can never work.”)

Instead we should think of contributing to Wikipedia as a Public Goods dilemma: contributing has personal cost and not enough countervailing personal benefit, but it has a social benefit higher than the individual cost. The literature has mainly focused on the “prosocial preferences” that lead people to include the actions/interets of others, which leads them to overcome the Public Goods dilemma.

There are three classes of models commonly used by economists to explain prosocial behavior:

First, the altruism motive. Second, reciprocity: you respond in kind to kind actions of others. Third, “social image”: contributing to the public good signals something that brings you other utility. (He cites Napoleon: “Give me enough meals and I will win you any war.”)

His research’s method: Elicit the social prefs of a representative sample of Wikipedia contributors via an online experiment, and use those preferences to predict subjects’ field contributions to the Wikipedia project.

To check the reciprocity motive, they ran a simple public goods game. Four people in a group. Each has $10. Each has to decide how much to invest in a public project. You get some money back, but the group gets more. You can condition your contribution on the contributions of the other group members. This enables the researchers to measure how much the reciprocity motive matters to you. [I know I’m not getting this right. Hard to keep up. Sorry.] They also used a standard online trust game: You get some money from a partner, and can respond in kind.

Q: Do these tests correlate with real world behavior?

A: That’s the point of this paper. This is the first comprehensive test of all three motives.

For studying altruism, the dictator game is the standard. The dictator can give as much as s/he wants to the other person. The dictator has no reason to transfer the money. This thus measures altruism. But people might contribute to Wikipedia out of altruism just to their own Wikipedia in-group, not general altruism (“directed altruism”). So they ran another game to measure in-group altruism.

Social image is hard to measure experimentally, so they relied on observational data. “Consider as ‘social signalers’ subjects who have a Wikipedia user page whose size is bigger than the median in the sample.” You can be a quite engaged contributor to Wikipedia and not have a personal user page. But a bigger page means more concern with social image. Second, they looked at Barnstars data. Barnstars are a “social rewarding practice” that’s mainly restricted to heavy contributors: contribute well to a Wikipedia article and you might be given a barnstar. These shows up on Talk pages. About half of the people move it to their user page where it is more visible. If you move one of those awards manually to your user page, Jérôme will count you as a social signaller, i.e., someone who cares about his/her image.

He talks about some of the practical issues they faced in doing this experiment online. They illustrated the working of each game by using some simple Flash animations. And they provided calculators so you could see the effect of your decisions before you make them.

The subject pool came from registered Wikipedia users, and looked at the number of edits the user has made. (The number of contributions at Wikipedia follows a strong power law distribution.) 200,000 people register at Wikipedia account each month (2011) but only 2% make ten contributions in the their first month, and only 10% make one contribution or more within the next year. So, they recruited the cohort of new Wikipedia contributors (190,000 subjects), the group of engaged Wikipedia contributors (at least 300 edits) (18,989), and Wikipedia administrators (1,388 subjects). To recruit people, they teamed up with the Wikimedia Foundation to put a banner up on a Wikipedia page if the user met the criteria as a subject. The banner asked the reader to help with research. If readers click through, they go to the experiment page where they are paid in real money if they complete the 25 minute experiment within eight hours.

The demographics of the experiment’s subjects (1,099) matched quite closely the overall demographics of those subject pools. (The pool had 9% women, and the experiment had 8%).

Jérôme shows the regression tables and explains them. Holding the demographics steady, what is the relation between the three motives and the number of contributions? For the altruistic motive, there is no predictive power. Reciprocity in both games (public and trust) is a highly significant predictive. This tells us that reciprocal preference can lead you from being a non-contributor to being an engaged contributor; once you’re an engaged contributor, it doesn’t predict how far you’re going to go. Social image is correlated with the number of contributions; 81% of people who have received barnstars are super-contributors. Being a social signaler is associated with a 130% rise in the number of contributions you make. By both user-page length and barnstar, social image motivates for more contributions even among super-contributors.

Reciprocity incentivizes contributions only for those who are not concerned about their social image. So, reciprocity and social image are both at play among the contributors, but among separate groups. I.e., if you’re motivated by reciprocity, you are likely not motivated by social image, and vice versa.

Now Jérôme focuses on Wikipedia administrators. Altruism has no predictive value. But Wikipedia participation is negatively associated with reciprocity; perhaps this is because admins have to have thick skins to deal with disruptive users. For social image, the user page has significant revelance for admins, but not barnstars. Social image is less strong among admins than among other contributors.

Jérôme now explores his “thick skin hypothesis” to explain the admin results. In the trust game, look at how much the trustor decides how much to give to the stranger/partner. Jérôme ’s hypothesis: Among admins, those who decide to perform more of their policing role will be less trusting of strangers. There’s a negative correlation among admins between the results from the trust game and their contributions. The more time they say they do admin edits, the less trusting they are of strangers in the tests. That sort of make sense, says Jérôme. These admins are doing a valuable job for which they have self-selected, but it requires dealing with irritating people.

QA

Q: Maybe an admin is above others and is thus not being reciprocated by the group.

A: Perfectly reasonable explanation, and it is not ruled out by the data.

Q: Did you come into this with an idea of what might motivate the Wikipedians?

A: These are the three theories that are prevalent. We wanted to see how well they map onto actual field behavior.

Q: Maybe the causation goes the other way: working in Wikipedia is making people more concerned about social image or reciprocity?

A: The correlations could go in either direction. But we want to know if those explanations actually match what people do in the field.

Q: Heather Ford looks at why articles are deleted for non-Western topics. She found the notability criteria change for people not close to the topics. Maybe the motives change depending on how close you are to the event.

A: Sounds fascinating.

Q: Admins have an inherent bias in that they focus on the small percentage of contributors who are annoying jerks. If you spend your time working with jerks, it affects your sense of trust.

A: Good point. I don’t have the data to answer it.

Q: [me] If I’m a journalist I’m likely to take away the wrong conclusions from this talk, so I want to make sure I’m understanding. For example, I might conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, whereas the right conclusion is (isn’t it?) that the standard altruism test doesn’t really measure altruism. Why not ask for self-reports to see?

A: Economists are skeptical about self-reports. If the reciprocity game predicts a correlation, that’s significant.

Yochai Benkler: Altruism has a special meaning among economists. It refers to any motivation other than “What’s in it for me?” [Because I asked the question, I didn’t do a good job recording the answers. Sorry.]

Q: Aren’t admins control freaks?

A: I wouldn’t say that. But control is not a pro-social motive, and I wanted to start with the theories that are current.

Q: You use the number of words someone writes on a user page as a sign of caring about social image, but this is in an context where people are there to write. And you’re correlating that to how much they write as editors and contributors. Maybe people at Wikipedia like to write. And maybe they write in those two different places for different reasons. Also, what do you do with these findings? Economists like to figure out which levers we pull if we’re not getting enough contributors.

Q: This sort of data seems to work well for large platforms with lots of users. What’s the scope of the methods you’re using? Only the top 100 web sites in the world?

A: I’d like to run this on all the peer production platforms in the world. Wikipedia is unusual if only because it’s been so successful. We’re already working on another project with 1,000 contributors at SourceForge especially to look at the effects of money, since about half of Open Source contributions are for money.


Fascinating talk. But it makes me want to be very dumb about it, because, well, I have no choice. So, here goes.

We can take this research as telling us something about Wikipedians’ motivations, about whether economists have picked the right three prosocial motivations, or about whether the standard tests of those motivations actually correlate to real-world motivations. I thought the point had to do with the last two alternatives and not so much the first. But I may have gotten it wrong.

So, suppose instead of talking about altruism, reciprocity, and social image we instead talk about the correlation between the six tests the researchers used and Wikipedia contributions. We would then have learned that Test #1 is a good predictor of the contribution levels of beginner Wikipedians, Test #2 predicts contributions by admins, Test #3 has a negative correlation with contributions by engaged Wikipedians, etc. But that would be of no interest, since we have (ex hypothesis) not made any assumptions about what the tests are testing for. Rather, the correlation would be a provocation to more research: why the heck does playing one of these odd little games correlate to Wikipedian productivity? It’d be like finding out that Wikipedian productivity is correlated to being a middle child or to wearing rings on both hands. How fascinating!… because these correlations have no implied explanatory power.

Now let’s plug back in the English terms that indicate some form of motivation. So now we can say that Test #3 shows that scoring high in altruism (in the game) does not correlate with being a Wikipedia admin. From this we can either conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, or that the game fails to predict the existing altruism among Wikipedia admins. Is there anything else we can conclude without doing some independent study of what motivates Wikipedia admins? Because it flies in the face of both common sense and my own experience of Wikipedia admins; I’m pretty convinced one reason they work so hard is so everyone can have a free, reliable, neutral encyclopedia. So my strong inclination – admittedly based on anecdote and “common sense” (= “I believe what I believe!”) – is to conclude that any behavioral test that misses altruism as a component of the motivation of someone who spends thousands of hours working for free on an open encyclopedia…well, there’s something hinky about that behavioral test.

Even if the altruism tests correlate well with people engaged in activities we unproblematically associate with altruism – volunteering in a soup kitchen, giving away much of one’s income – I’d still not conclude from the lack of correlation with Wikipedia admins that those admins are not motivated by altruism, among other motivations. It just doesn’t correlate with the sort of altruism the game tests for. Just ask those admins if they’d put in the same amount of time creating a commercial encyclopedia.

So, I come out of Jérôme’s truly fascinating talk feeling like I’ve learned more about the reliability of the tests than about the motivations of Wikipedians. Based on Jérôme’s and Yochai’s responses, I think that’s what I’m supposed to have learned, but the paper also seems to be putting forward interesting conclusions (e.g., admins are not trusting types) that rely upon the tests not just correlating with the quantity of edits, but also being reliable measures of altruism, self-image, and reciprocity as motives. I assume (and thus may be wrong) that’s why Jérôme offered an hypothesis to explain the lack-of-trust result, rather than discounting the finding that admins lack trust (to oversimplify it).

(Two concluding comments: 1. Yochai’s The Leviathan and the Penguin uses behavioral tests like these, as well as case studies and observation, to make the case that we are a cooperative species. Excellent, enjoyable book. (Here’s a podcast interview I did with him about it.) 2. I’m truly sorry to be this ignorant.)

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October 21, 2013

Lessons from Reddit

I gave a webcast talk at Library2.013 titled “Lessons from Reddit.” It’s available as an mp4 for streaming or downloading here. (You might want to start about 3 minutes in, in order to save 3 minutes of your life.)

It was a bit discursive. I had a few topics I knew I wanted to talk about, but I just talked. Here are the topics (with start times), as drawn from the lowest-value slide deck ever:

  • Why this topic? 3:00

  • What is Reddit? 5:10

  • Conversations are engineered 11:17

  • We are constantly surprised by scale 23:25

  • We don’t have interests. Interests have us.30:25

  • The virtue of echo chambers 36:40

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October 16, 2013

[berkman] Zeynep Tufecki on the boom-and-bust cycle of social-media-fueled protests (with live reporting)

Zeynep Tufecki [twitter:zeynep] is giving a Berkman Tuesday Lunch talk titled “Gezi Park Protests & the Boom-Bust Cycle of Social Media Fueled Protest.” She says that surveillance and social media + protest are two of her topics, so swhen protests broke out in her home country of Turkey, she felt she really had to study it. She is today presenting issues she is still working through.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She says that on the positive side of the role of social media on politics, we see lower coordination costs, the ability to shape the narrative, and an ability to overcome internal prejudice. On the negative: slacktivism, surveilliance, and propaganda. For her the lower costs cause the boom-bust cycle in social media-fueled activism. There are many questions she says, including why most of these social-media fueled protests fizzle out.

People usually argue about the wrong questions, Zeynep says. Instead, she suggests that we stop looking so much at the outputs of social media-fueled protests and instead at their capacity-building. Also, stop using offline or online as the important differentiation, and instead look at them in terms of what they signal.

She gives some background on Gezi, Turkey. The media focused on Taksim Square in Istanbul, but the action was actually in Gezi park. Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to turn the park into a developed area with housing, a shopping mall, and an old Ottoman barracks. This was an unpopular plan, and was taken as a symbol for wider discontent. Neighborhood people held a small protest. Maybe 30 people. But it was met with overwhelming force, which raised fear of the gov’t become authoritarian. People took to the streets. Turkish media are owned by large corporate conglomerates in cahoots with the gov’t. CNN locally was running shows about penguins, while CNN International was covering the protests. “So people got upset and took to Twitter and to the streets” (including an image of penguins in gas masks).


via Turkish Press Review Blog

After multiday clashes in the area, “coordinated and spread almost solely on social media,” Gezi Park was Occupied. (Zeynep stresses that Turkey, unlike, other countries nearby, has a popularly-elected gov’t.) Zeynep joined in, packing an audio recorder, a bike helmet, and a tear gas mask. And sun protector lotion because statistically, she says, she felt most threatened by the Sun.

A single party had been in power in Turkey for 11 years. The country was polarized, but with an ineffective opposition. There are barriers to creating new parties (you have to get 10% to get any seats), which means the country is locked into an ineffective opposition.

At first the occupation was like a fair: clean, kitchens that were feeding 10K people, and like a carnival in the evenings because of the visitors. Occasionally, you’d get tear gassed. “Woodstock meets the Paris Commune.” She shows a picture of a Sufi whirler wearing a gas mask. People were finding politics.

There was “one no, many yes-es,” [an anti-globalization meme] which Zeynep argues is an Internet phenomenon. Turks who normally would never talk with one another found each other in the park.

There’s the free-rider question. Even if the protest itself were a festival, the costs would be real: Five people died, thousands were injured by tear gas cannisters which can be lethal.

The protestors’ main grievances were: growing authoritarianism, media censoprship, and police brutality. (Source: Zeynep formally interviewed 130 people.)

The Net’s role was to break the censorship, create a new narrative, and to coordinate. She looks at each of these:

The media censorship was incredible. CNN Turkey showed a soccer match as protestors were being chased down the city’s main street. Protestors used Twitter in part because there were too many family members on Facebook. “Ironically, Twitter became more essential because it was more public.” Twitter’s blue bird became the symbol of freedom, in part because people trusted Twitter not to turn over names. Also: lots of penguins.

Real-time coordination: Overall, the Net worked. People coordinated in real time via Twitter. Local businesses turned on open Wifi. People would text to others who then tweeted.

People learned new literacies, especially who to trust. One Twitter stream only tweeted citizen journalism if it came with a photo, to increase credibility.

Counter narrative: Very youth and humor oriented. People came because it was a great place to be, even with the tear gassings. People felt fairly confident that they wouldn’t get shot at, similar to Western Europe or the US.

Leadership: There were 130 organizations, but no central leadership. Much of it was ad hoc, which worked because of social media.

After a few weeks, the protest was brutally dispersed, and then it moved to local parks and neighborhoods. When it broke up, the govt mostly decided to treat the protestors the way GW Bush treated the anti-Iraq War protests: not as a threat, but more like merely a focus group.

Capacity building: Look at capacity, not outcomes. E.g., look at literacy, not GDP (Amatyra Sen). Internet’s capacity-building renders other forms of capacity-building less useful.

The online and offline are one ecology. (She’s looking here at post-citizen protests, i.e., protests were the participants are already recognized as citizens).

The Net lowers the barriers for the resources necessary for protest. No one planned the Gezi protests. They just arose.

So what do protest do? They grab attention, promote social interaction, reveal info, and signal capacity. Her thesis: Internet protests don’t signal the same way as pre-Internet. The Net gains attention without media mediating. Media dependency brings distortion, censorship, and counter propaganda — but also dominance, focus, and singular narrative. Media attention pre-Net often signaled elite dissent. With the Net, movements can get attention on their own terms, but can’t get a singular or dominant narrative. “Since there is no single elite voice, there is no reliable way to signal elite dissent.” Now you can’t get away from polarized narratives.

For social interaction capacity, it’s a big win for the movements. It’s much easier to find people like you on the Net. “The Internet is a homophily machine.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work just for the movements you like. e.g., the anti-vaccine movement. It’s a win for social movements, but there will be many more movements.

Info revelation. Pluralistic ignorance = you think you’re the only one who is thinking something. The Net gets us past that, e.g., Facebook pages. But, then there are bandwagon/cascade effects.

Signaling: Protests as “stotting.” (“Stotting” = animals jumping up in the bush.) One explanation: it signals how strong you are and thus how fast you can run. Before the Net, because there wasn’t an easy way to organize, if you got a million people to DC, you’re signaling that you have an infrastructural capacity far beyond those million. Now, getting lots of people in the street doesn’t signal the threats that modern govts care about. Even when there are costs, those costs don’t signal the capacity to hurt the govt in ways the govt cares about. So, slacktivism is a bad argument; it’s not the cost of typing that’s being signalled.

Network internalities for social media-fueled protests are weaker. The Left doesn’t celebrate building network internalities because the Left sidesteps important tensions (leadership, representation, delegation). “Side stepping those tensions means that after the street protests, things are more unclear for the Left.” The Left is unable to negotiate, which is why so many movements are stuck at no. The Net allows them to sidestep developing ways to negotiate, etc. The Right, on the other hand (e;g., Tea Party) is comfortable challenging primaries.

To sum up: Look at the building of capacities, not how many people show up. This explains why there’s a repeated cycle where the protests are unable to engage in effective negotiation, representation, pressure, and delegation.

Q&A

Q: What other than Twitter is being used?

A: In Gezi, people knew how to post to Twitter by texting. And Twitter gained the users’ trust. Facebook was important for longer conversations. People collected photos on Tumblr. A lot of blogging, etc. But Twitter was how protesters talked with one another. Turkey isn’t a client state and didn’t need to appeal to America. And hashtags were dropped, so analytics miss just how big it was.

Q: [me] Is the Left stuck forever not being able to get past protests to actual change?

A: In Google Egypt Wael Ghonim was identified as a leader, and he was picked up for questioning. But he couldn’t have coerced a change even if he’d wanted to. I’m not saying this is great. At Gezi, the govt said “Let’s negotiate.” But who do you send? They sent people from the traditional NGOs, but they had no representational capacity. They listend to the Prime Minister. But they weren’t empowered to negotiate. The govt was genuinely frustrated that they couldn’t find a negotiating partner. So after the negotiations, there were some demands, they came back to the park. It’s 3 or 4am. They’re trying to explain what happened. People were confused. There was no way to deal with it. The next day, the protestors formed little forums, but how do you decide which to listen to? Some people were ready to accept it an go. People wanted consensus. But consensus has meant “a lot of social pressure.” That doesn’t work in the modern city. So where do we go with this? It can’t just be technology. There has to be a recognition among Left movements that if you can’t ever delegate or negotiate, then you’re stuck at No. The Right isn’t like this. The Right is using social media to make really significant strides. They’ve blocked the President’s agenda. They’re getting elected in Europe. They Left is unable to get together enough to address the 30-40% unemplyment in Spain. The big visible protests are Left wing. The big visible gains are Right wing.

Q: You said there were about 150 social groups involved in the movement. What was the relation between how they organize this protest and …?

The 150 groups didn’t represent the people on the ground. The groups formed the leadership because they were there, but people on the ground didn’t think of themselves as being there as members of those groups. The traditional NGOs had no capacity to lead, and didn’t understand that.

Q: I was a protestor in Ankara. I was tear gassed three times. Tastes good. How can we orient this approach to be an alternative to the traditional opposition structure? The classic opposition parties in Turkey do not represent the young people, the democratic-based people.

A: We have a huge crisis in opposition representation. The classic opposition parties do not represent the young generation. The young are big on pluralism, for example. There’s no party that represents the live-and-let-live ethic among the protestors. E.g., the young have no polarization around the head scarf issue: “They should if they want to, and not if they don’t want to.” That’s not represented in Parliament. The electoral system blocks the formation of new parties because of the 10% barrier. But, also, the young have a cultural allergy to representation because in traditional politics they see corruption, not representation.

Q: But there’s a trend in the Turkish community to do something. We have to find an alternative.

A: What motivates the existing govt is people losing office.

Q: How many companies offer Internet facilities in Turkey?

A: The backbone goes through one and then it’s sold to companies that can sell access. Great for surveillance. But it’s not the same concern as elsewhere, which is why people felt safe tweeting. Turkey is probably more wired than the US, which isn’t saying so much. Smartphones are necessary just to coordinate meeting up. Much lateness.

Q: In India, we have two successful models. The protests against the rape case were done through FB. An anti-corruption movement was able to organize millions of people throughout the country. But how do you coalesce these energies, give it a shape? But a word of caution: Panic about people from the northeast of India spread throughout the country thanks to social media, leading to killings.

The biggest case of non-state terrorism happened in Pakistan because of a video. Is the Internet good or bad? Yes.

Q: Is protest never effective?

A: Numbers still matter. But it depends on what it’s signaling, which also depends on context. If it signals than we’re here and we’re going to challenge you in your weak point, then yes…

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June 15, 2013

[2b2k][eim] My Stuttgart syllabus

I’ve just finished leading two days of workshops at University of Stuttgart as part of my fellowship at the Internazionales Zentrum für Kultur- und Technikforschung. (No, I taught in English.) This was for me a wonderful experience. First of all, the students were engaged, smart, talked from diverse standpoints, and fun. Second, it reminded me how to teach. I had so much trouble trying to structure sessions, feeling totally unsure how one does so. But the eight 1.5 hour sessions reminded me why I loved teaching.

For my own memory, here are the sessions (and if any of you were there and took notes, I’d love to see them):

Friday

#1 Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, and Internet exceptionalism defined, with JP Barlow’s Declaration of the Independent of Cyberspace as an example. Class introductions.

#2 Information Age to Age of Connected. Why Ted Nelson’s Xanadu did not succeed the way the Web did. Rough technical architecture of the Net and (perhaps) its embedded political values. Hyperlinks.

#3 Digital order. Everything is miscellaneous? From information Retrieval to search engines. Schema-based databases to tagging.

#4 Networked knowledge. What knowledge looks like once it’s been freed of paper. Four challenges to networked knowledge (with many more added by the students.)

On Saturday we talked about topics that the students decided were interesting:

#1 Mobile net. Is Facebook making us more or less social? Why do we fill up every interstice by using Facebook on mobiles? What does this say about us and the notion of the self?

#2 Downloading. Do you download music illegally? What is your justification? How might artists respond? Why is the term “intellectual property” so loaded?

#3 Education. What makes a great in-person course? What makes for a miserable one? Oddly, many of the characteristics of miserable classes are also characteristics of MOOCs. What might we do about that? How much of this is caused by the fact that MOOCs are construed as courses in the traditional sense?

#4 Internet culture. Is there such a thing? If there are many, is any particular one to be privileged? How does the Net look to a culture that is dedicated to warding off what it says as corrupting influences? End with LolCatBible and the astounding TheJohnnyCashProject

Thank you, students. This experience meant a great deal to me.

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February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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January 5, 2013

[2b2k] Science as social object

An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.

The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels[1]. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.

First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media [2].

Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…”[3] This leads them to ask an important question:

Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…

Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference [4] where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”

They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:

Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.

I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.

But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.

So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.

We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.

 


Notes, copied straight from the article:

[1] M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).

[2] C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43

[3] P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)

[4] P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts

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December 30, 2012

[2b2k] My world leader can beat up your world leader

There’s a knowingly ridiculous thread at Reddit at the moment: Which world leader would win if pitted against other leaders in a fight to the death.

The title is a straightline begging for punchlines. And it is a funny thread. Yet, I found it shockingly informative. The shock comes from realizing just how poorly informed I am.

My first reaction to the title was “Putin, duh!” That just shows you what I know. From the thread I learned that Joseph Kabila (Congo) and Boyko Borisov (Bulgaria) would kick Putin’s ass. Not to mention that Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Bhutan), who would win on good looks.

Now, when I say that this thread is “shockingly informative,” I don’t mean that it gives sufficient or even relevant information about the leaders it discusses. After all, it focuses on their personal combat skills. Rather, it is an interesting example of the haphazard way information spreads when that spreading is participatory. So, we are unlikely to have sent around the Wikipedia article on Kabila or Borisov simply because we all should know about the people leading the nations of the world. Further, while there is more information about world leaders available than ever in human history, it is distributed across a huge mass of content from which we are free to pick and choose. That’s disappointing at the least and disastrous at its worst.

On the other hand, information is now passed around if it is made interesting, sometimes in jokey, demeaning ways, like an article that steers us toward beefcake (although the president of Ireland does make it up quite high in the Reddit thread). The information that gets propagated through this system is thus spotty and incomplete. It only becomes an occasion for serendipity if it is interesting, not simply because it’s worthwhile. But even jokey, demeaning posts can and should have links for those whose interest is piqued.

So, two unspectacular conclusions.

First, in our despair over the diminishing of a shared knowledge-base of important information, we should not ignore the off-kilter ways in which some worthwhile information does actually propagate through the system. Indeed, it is a system designed to propagate that which is off-kilter enough to be interesting. Not all of that “news,” however, is about water-skiing cats. Just most.

Second, we need to continue to have the discussion about whether there is in fact a shared news/knowledge-base that can be gathered and disseminated, whether there ever was, whether our populations ever actually came close to living up to that ideal, the price we paid for having a canon of news and knowledge, and whether the networking of knowledge opens up any positive possibilities for dealing with news and knowledge at scale. For example, perhaps a network is well-informed if it has experts on hand who can explain events at depth (and in interesting ways) on demand, rather than assuming that everyone has to be a little bit expert at everything.

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July 2, 2012

How I became a creepy old man

I was checking Facebook yesterday afternoon, as I do regularly every six months or so. It greeted me with a list of friend requests. One was from the daughter of a colleague. So I accepted on the grounds that it was unexpected but kind of cute that she would ask.

Only after I clicked did I realize that the list was not of requests but of suggestions for people I might want to friend. So, now the daughter of a colleague has received a friend request from a 61 year old man she never heard of, and I’m probably going to end up on the No Fly list.

The happy resolution: I contacted my colleague to let him know, and he took it as an opportunity to have a conversation with his daughter about how to handle friend requests from people she doesn’t know, especially pervy-looking old men.

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